Voices in Education

An Alternate Lens on Young Black and Brown Males: Putting a Focus on Emotional Complexity
When the public thinks about Black and Brown teenage males, they often think of problems and deficits. This is true in many social science journal articles as it is in mainstream media. Societal images of them are regularly overgeneralized, incriminating, and fundamentally untrue.
As I recently argued, educators and policy makers focus excessively on negative outcomes among Black and Latino males—dropout, suspension, prison involvement—and not on the emotional, artistic, and intellectual lives they lead. In line with Gloria Ladson-Billings (2012) and others, I believe we must offer evidence that challenges and defies these deficit paradigms and that provides alternative ways of seeing young men of color.
The intent of my article “Toward a Relational Perspective on Young Black and Latino Males” (HER, Winter 2014) is to provide a counterpoint to the limited perspective these negative images and stereotypes offer on young males of color. I conducted multiple individual interviews with a small group of male teens who attended different secondary schools in Boston. Each young man discussed his experiences, relationships, and perceptions involving school and neighborhood contexts.
During the study, I found that many of these young men coped with experiences of discrimination and prejudice in school by disclosing these feelings to their friends. In other words, they talked through concerns about racialized interactions involving teachers or classmates with their closest peers. In fact, the extent to which young men reported engaging in disclosure—sharing one’s internal thoughts and feelings—appeared to hinge on the opportunities for emotional intimacy in their daily lives. Those young men who reported sharing thoughts and emotions with friends, including their perceptions of racial discrimination within school, often did so outside of school contexts. Indeed, these same disclosing males chose not to communicate their vulnerable experiences with discrimination or racism in school to teachers or administrators. On the other hand, many of the young men who said they kept their emotions and personal information to themselves—those who did not disclosereported witnessing violence or anxieties about violence in their neighborhoods. These young men said that they did not share internal information with others out of fear of victimization, or because such relationships were not available.
These findings reveal how context matters. It mattered to the young men in my study, who saw school as an inappropriate place to show vulnerability. But disclosure—talking about difficulties—is critical to our work with students in schools. Young men who are constantly on guard in school may have a more difficult time learning at the highest levels to which they are capable.
If we want our schools to be more just institutions, how do we adjust our practices and ensure that students feel emboldened enough to name injustice and prejudice—to overcome the pressure to be silent and disclose personal experiences with discrimination when they occur?
My study suggests that opportunities for emotional connections be investigated at the individual and institutional levels. Those young men who described violence or the fear of victimization in their communities had fewer opportunities for expression or experiences with emotional connection. It was difficult for these young men to be vulnerable growing up on the battle lines of race, class, and gender, and attending schools where related expectations were ever present.
Still, if we attune ourselves, we witness that Black and Brown teenage males live emotionally rich, insightful, and complicated lives. The first step to improving and creating better systems of support is changing and complicating our own understanding of them.
Knight, D. J. (2014). Don’t tell young black men that they are ‘endangered.’ The Washington
Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/young-black-males-trapped-by-rhetoric/2014/10/10/dcf95688-31e2-11e4-9e92-0899b306bbea_story.html
Ladson-Billings, G. (2012). Through a glass darkly: The persistence of race in education
research & scholarship. Educational Researcher, 41, 115–120.

About the Author: David J. Knight is an urban educator and researcher in Boston. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.